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The Impossibility of Focusing on Two Things at Once

Hernandez

Morela Hernandez is an associate professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. The Darden School is on Twitter @dardenmba. Links to Hernandez’s work are online at morelahernandez.com.

Ever hear a recommendation from a manager that you need to “be more of a strategic thinker”? The feedback might initially seem surprising or even insulting if you feel like you already have been working hard to do your job well. In deciphering your manager’s advice, you might realize that it is a call to maximize your individual performance while enhancing organizational success.

The problem is that your brain is not hardwired to focus simultaneously on specific, day-to-day activities and more collective, long-term objectives. Neurological science has demonstrated that the human brain is incapable of focusing on two things at once.

To better understand this issue, and its potential implications to business, I embarked on several research projects with my colleague Cristiano L. Guarana, an assistant professor at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. In an empirical study of unethical behavior in organizations, for instance, we theorized that employees’ reactions to ethical violations might depend on where their attention is focused: their job (narrow) or their organization (broad). Specifically, we prompted participants to write about how or why they would improve their performance; the “how” prompted them to focus narrowly whereas the “why” broadened their focus. Next, half of the participants read a scenario about a junior researcher in a pharmaceutical company who made up data points to advance his career. The other half read a similar scenario but was told that the junior researcher added the data points to affect the long-term success of the organization. Participants then had to judge whether they thought the behavior was ethical. We found that participants with a narrow focus, as compared to those with a broad focus, reacted more negatively to ethical violations made to advance an individual’s career. Conversely, we found that participants with a broad focus, as compared to those with a narrow focus, reacted more negatively to ethical violations made to benefit the success of the company.

These findings imply that employees’ focus can bias their sensitivity to ethical practices, blinding them to unethical behavior outside their focal considerations. Indeed, it seemed as though my colleague and I had unearthed a new cognitive bias, which we called “scope bias.” We define scope bias as an individual’s restricted attention to either narrow or broad factors.

The Chilling Effect of Scope Bias

If scope bias existed, we wanted to know if the chilling effect of such restricted attention on ethics generalized to other domains of organizational functioning, such as creativity. We chose to examine employees who were particularly engaged in their jobs, since high levels of engagement have been tied to effective performance on tasks.

In a series of studies, we proposed that job engagement can narrow employees’ attentional focus to aspects related to the job — ironically, at the expense of other important aspects related to the organization.

We conducted four studies with employees from a variety of industries to investigate the effects of narrow and broad attention on creativity. We found consistent results showing that highly engaged employees restrict their attention to aspects related to the job, which in turn has positive effects on in-role creativity (that is, the generation of novel and useful ideas related to improving the job). Nevertheless, we found that job engagement might come at a cost: Highly engaged individuals performed poorly in tasks designed to measure out-role creativity (that is, generation of novel and useful ideas related to improving the organization) because they lacked a broad focus.

The results were shockingly consistent with our predictions based on scope bias. Correspondingly, these new insights were troubling, because given modern business demands, how can organizations afford to not have employees focus both narrowly and broadly at once?

The Crucial Need for Organizational Processes and Structures

Consider, for example, an engineer working on an oil rig, whose job it is to monitor the safety of employees working on the rig. The engineer sits in a large office equipped with a number of monitors reminiscent of a flight control room. In each monitor, a scene of individual parts of the rig come to life where he can surveil employees’ behaviors and interactions. From his vantage point, he can see patterns of behaviors in one unit that might cause trouble for a different unit. From the vantage point of employees, working to diligently ensure the effectiveness of their individual unit is paramount. Neither the engineer, nor the individual employees, can fully appreciate one another’s perspectives. Perhaps this is why oil and gas companies have such monitoring systems, where responsibility for the total functioning of the rig is delegated to employees in different physical locations who can make different kinds of observations.

Our research on both unethical behavior and creativity underscores the need for organizations to design processes and structures that allow employees to familiarize themselves with perspectives not readily available in their current roles. Taking again the example of the oil rig, the system-wide structure for monitoring the safety and performance of the rig is not simply defined by having one person monitor the whole operation while others monitor individual units. Employees in these two functional areas should interact to exchange information, troubleshoot, and learn. Organizations can create routines for employees with different vantage points (legal, marketing, accounting, sales, and so on) to interact. Organizations can also institute accountability and reward measures to reinforce fruitful discussions and effective, collaborative action.

To battle the limitations of the human brain, organizational system-wide interventions are necessary. Without structural and procedural solutions to facilitate employees’ ability to switch back and forth from a narrowly constrained focus on their individual tasks to a broadly defined focus on organizational elements, managerial feedback to “think strategically” will remain an impossibility.

2 Comments On: The Impossibility of Focusing on Two Things at Once

  • Robert Jones | April 11, 2018

    My grandmother who came to the U.S. about 1920 must have gone to MIT. She taught me, “You can’t do two things at once.” This is an important truth that I’ve discussed with HR folks about “Diversity Hiring.” Focusing on discounting “differences” while also trying to focus on assessing a talent match with the position skews the process toward favoring the candidate for which the process is cognitively easier to manage. This is great validating research, particularly with the ethics bent.

  • Abhijit Bhattacharya | April 11, 2018

    In a recent SMR article on turning strategy into result by Donald Sull et all, it was mentioned that the number of strategic priorities needed to be brought down to 3 to 5 for a planning period of 3 to 5 years. I wonder whether in such a compressed strategy implementation schedule along with constant monitoring and reworking of tactical tasks, it is possible for the firm leadership to concentrate on only one thing at a time.

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